What’s it like to be a Red?
It’s not particularly enjoyable this season, when Ferguson has stepped down, the team has imploded and the whole world is relishing Manchester United’s seemingly precipitous fall from grace. It’s not just the ABUs either: collectively, the Press has decided upon the narrative and anything which deviates from their simplistic analysis of how David Moyes has brought the once-mighty United down to permanent extinction is to be ignored or denigrated.
I mean, let’s say that on this Wednesday coming, 2-0 down from the Champions League first leg against Olympiakos, United rally to win 3-0 and go through to the Quarter Finals. United will not be given any credit for engineering a reversal that they haven’t achieved in 30 years: that the opposition is Olympiakos will be used to relegate the feat and the focus will still be on United’s first leg defeat.
The story is set in stone: United/Ferguson = world beating, United/Moyes = League Two material. And in a single summer too.
Of course, you know that there’s a lot more to it than that.
Though I’ve only been a fully-fledged United fan since 1979 (exiled in Nottingham, at the time Forest were League Champions and en route to their first European Cup, I needed something to bolster a Mancunian identity), I’m old enough to remember the 1968 European Cup Final, and the beginning of the wilderness years that followed the stepping down of Sir Matt Busby. That immediately gives me a head start over the generation of football fans – and journalists – who have not only known only Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford but have known only the glory years that began with the 1990 FA Cup win – achieved against a background of a near-season long relegation struggle.
These people lack the perspective to imagine United as anything other than perpetual challengers for honours. They can summon it up as an intellectual exercise, but they can’t understand it, not when United have only ever finished as low as third twice in the entire Premiership era.
I, on the other hand, have not only been prepared for a post-Ferguson slump, I know what it feels like. It doesn’t make it any more pleasant, but familiarity not only softens the blow, it allows for the ability to recognise that things can improve at a slower speed than overnight.
To be honest, the Ferguson era has been a statistical improbability: thirteen Premierships in twenty years? Three in a row twice? That’s nearly twice as many Championships that everybody else put together, and two sets of three in eleven years when only three clubs have ever won one set before us, in seventy years? It’s been absolutely brilliant to watch, and when, long ago, we won the Resurrection Title (1993), I could never have fantasised that it could be like this and go on for so long.
But every year that this has gone on has exaggerated the scale of United’s success, and guaranteed that the comedown would be proportionately worse when it inevitably came.
Back in 1993, when we broke 26 years of drought to win the first Premier League, I was working with an avid Blue, who was decent enough to offer me the congratulations I could never have offered him. He also warned me, with utter solemnity, not to go overboard celebrating. His point wa sthat, if I revelled in our title the way I wanted to, the way I believed I was entitled to do, it would do me some kind of harm: people would think higher of me if i was gentle, restrained, modest: ie, if I didn’t talk about it at all.
I thought about his words for a while, and then rejected them completely. At that moment, we were on top. It would never be 26 years again. I wasn’t saying we’d win it again the next season (a prophesy that cemented my record and sunk it to the bottom of a pond forever) but we would be Champions again within four years at most (ha ha ha ha ha!). So my philosophy was: if you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it, because it won’t last forever. In victory, gloating, in defeat resentment. Because when United fell away from being at the top, my having been a perfect gentleman about celebrating our success won’t spare me one tiny second of the spite that will follow.
That’s how it’s been ever since, for longer, as I’ve said, than I dreamed it might be. But if you’re going to gloat about victory, if you’re going to rub people’s noses in it, there is one cast-iron rule: you have to take it from others when it’s their turn to be in the ascendency.
And I’ve stuck to that maxim, no matter how painful its been this season: besides, there is nothing more disconcerting for the gloating ABU than to find you agreeing with him in a matter-of-fact manner.
Because that’s the other side of the coin. The press keep making much of the gulf between United 2013, Champions by eleven points, and the United of 2014 who, with practically the same squad, are shedding points all over the place.
There is an explanation for this, but it’s not one that fits the prevailing press narrative, because it doesn’t rest solely on the notion that David Moyes has destroyed United. Nobody’s prepared to even contemplate the possibility that United 2013’s success was heavily flattering to a team playing far above its genuine skill level.
Now that’s heresy, but that’s my belief.
Let’s take a slightly more detailed look at the Ferguson era. It breaks into two parts: first, the breakthrough back into titles, which saw seven titles in nine years, including a set of three. Much of this era, though not the beginning of it, was defined by the You-Can’t-Win-Anything-With-Kids sextet. That first great era concluded in 2003, when United came back at Arsenal, dogging them until the end of the season to make it eight in eleven.
That era was then followed by three fallow years, during which United finished third for the first time. Ferguson couldn’t find a formula to make things work, though United did win the FA Cup (against Millwall) and the League Cup (against Wigan), as well as losing a one-sided final on penalties to an Arsenal team they’d dominated for 120 minutes.
Then phase 2 started. Let’s call it the Rooney/Ronaldo era, or better the Ronaldo era, for though he’d been establishing himself during the fallow years, this is when Cristiano Ronaldo was becoming the best player in the world.
And although he was only part of United for the first three years of this phase, his absence defined this era as much as his presence.
In this second phase, United collected another five titles in seven seasons, including a second set of three. Of the two they missed out on, one was infamously by goal difference only, by virtually the last kick of the season. They also reached three Champions League Finals in four seasons, though they only won the one that wasn’t against Barcelona.
It’s another phase of seemingly unparalleled dominance, supported by the statistics, but it’s by no means as simple as the statistics and the press make it seem.
I’ve seen more of United’s games in this period than I have ever before, even when I was a season ticket holder at Old Trafford. Thanks to live-streaming, the only time I miss a United game is when I’m at work. I’ve watched the team intensely for several years, week in, week out. I’ve seen the difference between what the press states as part of its established narratives, such as the fact that Wayne Rooney cannot take a decent corner to save his life, and that for every free kick he puts beyond the goalkeeper, thirty or more are either fired miles over the bar or hit straight into a non-encroaching wall.
What has been most obvious was that when Ronaldo left United for Real Madrid he left a hole that has not even begun to be replaced.
I don’t mean in his person: you cannot ‘replace’ a Cristiano Ronaldo: by his very nature, he is irreplaceable.
But when Ronnie left Old Trafford, he took with him more than his considerable ability, he took United’s speed. And not only speed of motion, the fast, attacking style that’s a key characteristic of United’s DNA but, more importantly, Unityed’s speed of thought.
Watch a United performance between 2007 and 2009. Even in defeat, United are aggressive, decisive, moving forward inexorably, trying to beat defenders, to get behind and between them at pace. Compare this then with even the best of the post-Ronaldo performances, and United’s approach is completely different. There is no decisiveness, replaced by a willingness to indulge in long spells of what I call pointless passing, interpassing – usually in their own half – without making any attempt to get forward. Especially when in the lead.
The ball is no longer played forward, between opposition players. Should a defender be anywhere remotely between the player on the ball and his team-mate, the forward pass no longer appears: it is back, or sideways, until the player in an advanced position is either covered by an assembled defence, or else has to come back, further from goal, to receive the ball in a position of no opportunity.
Breakaways break down not through over-ambition or courageous defending, but due to the player on the ball immediately halting when a defender gets within fifteen yards of him. Play is held up until he has support but, more importantly, until the whole defence has marshalled itself into position.
I don’t want to start castigating individual players, but in this context it’s impossible not to refer to Luis Antonio Valencia. Valencia was a superb acquisition, a fast, courageous winger who exactly fitted United’s style. Sadly, he suffered a severe leg break, costing him most of a season and, since his return, his whole style of play has changed. It is characteristic of the modern United – and I speak of the Ferguson period, not of Moyes – to see Tony Valencia race up the right wing, with the ball, only to stop as soon as a defender tracks him, and stand over the ball, not moving, because he no longer has the confidence to take the defender on, and he has no idea what to do with the ball any more.
The point is that this isn’t just something that’s started since David Moyes took charge. United may have won the title last season by an astonishing 11 points, but has everyone forgotten how badlty the team struggled before Christmas, falling behind in so many games, depending so often on a late goal from Chicarito, off the bench. What of Ferguson’s final match in chargem, at West Brom? 3-0 up, and then 5-2 up with less than ten minutes to play, United allowed West Brom to score three goals, to secure an improbable 5-5 draw.
It’s not just Moyes. There was a rot there before he ever came to Old Trafford, a collective lack of quality in the squad, in respect of which the sheer force of Ferguson, and the intimidating aura he brought to United was not so much a papering over the cracks as a comprehensive polyfilla-ing of the very foundations.
So, what’s to be done? Is it David Moyes? I’ve kept the faith for him throughout the season, but after the defeat to Liverpool – and especially after his open concession to Liverpool being the better team, a thing that United fans are able to do in the spirit of honesty but no United manager should ever say – I’m starting to lose belief in his ability to build the kind of team we need to see. As far as I can judge, radical surgery upon maybe two-thirds of the current squad is necessary, but is he the right man to set a new direction?
If not Moyesy, who else? Not, for certain, and under any circumstances, Jose Mourinho. He’d win things, but he’d destroy United: if not whilst he was there, then for years after he’s gone. he’s probably the only manager in the game who could cause me to distance myself from my team.
I’m actually coming around to the belief that United would be very well served by selling Wayne Rooney.
I don’t say that lightly. He’s been fantastic for United, done some incredible and vital things, and he’s always being painted as England’s only world class player.
But I watch him, week in, week out. I see him waste free-kicks and corners by the dozen. I see him regularly bang forty yard balls out to the player on the right wing with an accuracy worthy of Paul Scholes, but he can’t pass the ball ten yards without giving it to the opposition. He keeps lumbering forwward with the ball, even though he loses it nineteen times out of twenty. He will not pass the ball to Robin van Persie except under extreme duress, which I put down to having his arrogant nose put out of joint by the idea that someone else may possibly be more valuable to United than he is.
And he is the most completely indisciplined player I have seen at United in a very long time. Everybody goes crazy about it, Rooney turning up everywhere on the field, dropping deep to pick it up all the time, eager to be involved at every possible moment of the game.
Or, as a recent and very perceptive analysis pointed out, a player constantly trying to fill in by doing the job of specialised midfielders/defenders/wingers etc., usurping their roles on the pitch and, even more damagingly, depriving them of the outlet for their talents by being too bloody close to them when they are in a position to unleash a damaging ball to where Rooney ought properly to be.
To use one of Terry Pratchett’s favourite analogies, Rooney is like a metal ball on a rubber sheet, distorting the shape of everything around it. The team, the club, is forced to accommodate what he wants to do at any given moment, restricting their ability to give their talents to the game. And, frankly, having watched him perform so often, I am now unable to believe that he will ever match the enthusiasm and ability he showed a decade before, that he cannot achieve a fitness level necessary to perform, and he has retrogressed in his abilities to the point that he frequently no longer merits his place in the team.
And let’s not get started on the loyalty issue.
All of these things feed into being a Red in this season of disgrace, 2013/14. United haven’t suddenly stopped being a good team: they were a disaster waiting to happen, held together only by the force of will of Alex Ferguson, and now that has been removed, United are exposed, and the hounds are circling, determined not to allow anyone to escape.
But it’s like I said before: in victory, gloating, in defeat, resentment. When you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it, because it won’t last forever. I made every minute of it count, for far longer than I imagined it possible.
No-one can take that away from me. Three Cup Finals and Three Doubles. Thirteen titles. Knocking Liverpool of their fucking perch. The Nou Camp on 25 May 1999. The entire career of the Ginger Genius. Eric.
And the good times will come back. These bad days will make them all the sweeter.